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Los Angeles needs more parks. Measure A is the smartest way to pay for them we could have asked for

Los Angeles needs more parks. Measure A is the smartest way to pay for them we could have asked for
Rattlesnake Park along the Los Angeles River in L.A.'s Elysian Valley neighborhood. (Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles has the well-deserved reputation as one the worst metropolitan regions in the country when it comes to parks and public space. L.A. ranks 65th among the 100 largest U.S. cities in the Trust for Public Land's national "ParkScore" ranking. Only half of Los Angeles County residents have a park within walking distance, and less than half of those parks are in good condition. Eighty percent of them experience overcrowding from users.

All that stands to change, however, if voters approve Measure A on the ballot in L.A. County on Nov. 8. Measure A promises to increase and fix county parks, and its mechanisms are the best we found after an exhaustive study of similar measures across the country.

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To be sure, whether Measure A is better than park funding schemes in New York, Illinois or Hawaii might not matter much to Los Angeles voters. When we go to the ballot box, especially when we're voting on taxes, our first question is usually: How much is it going to cost me?

So let's get that one out of the way. Measure A taxes structural improvements on your property at a rate of 1½ cents per square foot. So, if you own a 1,500-square-foot house, it will cost you $22.50 a year. That tax essentially replaces a "benefit assessment" property tax of about the same rate that is about to expire.

The cost is negligible.

In return, every L.A. County voter gets the guarantee of seeing park improvements in their community. Measure A works by dividing the county by population into 188 study areas. A distribution formula to spread funds throughout these study areas is hardwired into the measure.

And here's where things get so interesting, and why we came to the conclusion that Measure A is, indeed, the best parks initiative in the country: While comprehensively spreading funds throughout the county, Measure A still manages to prioritize areas of high need in communities that have no parks or where parks are in poor condition.

It's standard practice in park planning these days for a county or city to produce a "needs assessment," as Los Angeles County did before putting a funding measure on the ballot. But many of these needs assessments are not actually tied to the implementation of funding measures. Very few prioritize focusing on the most desperate of areas that have not historically benefited from investments in parks. Some are simply ignored altogether.

In preparing for Measure A, L.A. County has done as careful and thorough a needs assessment as this country has ever seen, mapping needs from the ground up, getting input not just from parks agencies, but also from residents through community meetings, and cataloging not only what is in parks — picnic areas, playing fields, restrooms — but also the condition of the parks and their facilities. And here's the key: No place in the country has so tightly tied its funding measure to its needs assessment, preventing petty politics from interfering with sound planning.

If Measure A passes, this comprehensive needs assessment will be what guides investments, and can be regularly updated as conditions on the ground change. Projects in areas of highest need in each of the county's 188 study areas will get funding priority, ensuring that the benefits are widely shared. And a portion of the measure — 13% — is dedicated to the most park-poor, historically neglected areas of the county, which are especially concentrated in South Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

There are two additional innovations in Measure A that set it apart.

Parks managers have long complained that voters and elected officials like to fund new projects — politicians especially love ribbon cuttings — but neglect these new parks as soon as they're built.

Measure A, on the other hand, not only sets aside funds for park maintenance, but it goes further. Every year, up to 2% of the funding will shift from park improvements to maintenance, until we're eventually spending as much on maintaining parks as we do building new ones.

Finally, Measure A has unprecedented language requiring annual open reporting of data on exactly where money is being spent and on what. This will allow researchers, citizens and journalists, as well as advocates, park managers and elected officials. to monitor what we're getting for our tax dollars — and to advocate for improvements if needed.

Parks managers and public space advocates around the country see Measure A as a potential model for the rest of the United States to follow. That, in itself, may not be a good enough reason to vote yes in November, but the park improvements we will see throughout our communities are.

Jon Christensen is an environmental historian in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. Samantha Ong is a senior in philosophy at UCLA. Christensen will present the results of research on equity and environmental investments and lead a discussion at UCLA's Luskin Center for Innovation on Oct. 13 from 5 to 7 p.m.

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